On Writing

Are you a Pantser or a Plotter?

The first time I heard the term “pantser” was at the Ozark Writers Conference a few years ago when the term came up in the middle of a talk.  It took a few minutes for me to figure out a pantser is one who writes “by the seat of her pants” without a detailed plan. Or, in my case, without any plan at all.

Yep. I knew I was a pantser. I do EVERYTHING by the seat of my pants.  Never made a plan in my life. At least not one that I was able to actually follow.

That has worked out for me with most things in life. I married on a moments notice to a man I’d met three months before.  We have three fine grown children who get irritated with me if I mention I never planned on having any of them.  I even have a  solid career in a field I never studied.

Unfortunately, I also have a cabinet full of unfinished novels.  “Pantsing” works for me on short pieces. But I’m beginning to think novel writing works better with a plan.

 

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Show, Don’t Tell

A phrase we hear often as writers is “Show, don’t tell.” One way we can do this more effectively is to include descriptions using all five senses. Sensory words paint vivid pictures that relate to the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. In fiction, non-fiction and poetry, they serve as a type of shorthand to evoke memories or feelings that draw readers into your world.   Some writers find it easy to include sense-related details in their writing. Most of us have to work at it.

A good exercise to help add detail using all five senses is to make a list.  Here’s an  incomplete list for Spring. Notice how much longer the sight list is? You have to work harder to find smell, taste, touch and sound.

Sight: sun showers, longer days, trees and grasses greening up, flowers blooming, buttercups, daffodils, tulips, lilies, dormant plants pushing back up through the earth, buds and blossoms on trees, increased animal activity, baby animal sightings, effects from breezes, warm weather clothes, rivers rise and run swiftly from snowmelt, more butterflies/bees/other insects (because of increased blossoms), people working in their yards, birds flying north, nest-building, the emergence of hibernating animals, plants pushing up through snow or ice, increased pollen in the air, umbrellas and rain boots, kids playing baseball, rainbows, cherry blossoms

Smell: the clean damp smell after it rains, newly turned dirt for gardens, floral scents.

Taste: rain, Easter candy, morel mushrooms, fresh green onions

Touch: the sun’s warmth on your skin, the fresh touch of the breeze as opposed to the frigid one you’ve felt all winter long, spongy or grainy feel of dirt in the garden, dirt clods falling on your feet as you pull weeds, the clean feel of the air on your legs and arms after so much time wearing long sleeves and pants, allergy symptoms

Sound: rushing water, rain falling, bare feet slapping the pavement, puddle-splashing, birds chirping, frogs peeping, insects buzzing, kids-playing-outside sounds, the honk of geese as they return home, the crack of balls hitting bats

EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS:

Mood: After so many months of cold weather and brown landscapes, spring brings a renewed sense of optimism. Spirits lift, people are more friendly and kind. Spring evokes hope and renewed vigor.

Symbolism: renewal, rebirth, beginnings, second chances, cleansing

Possible Cliches: spring chickens, April showers bring May flowers, robin’s egg blue

OTHER:Weather and seasons vary by region. Spring in Canada looks very different from spring in southern California. Temperate areas may have a very short spring, if any at all.

Don’t be afraid to use the weather to add contrast. Unusual pairings, especially when drawing attention to the Character’s emotions, is a powerful trigger for tension. Consider how the bleak mood of a character is even more noticeable as morning sunlight dances across the crystals of fresh snow on the walk to work. Or how the feeling of betrayal is so much more poignant on a hot summer day. Likewise, success or joy can be hampered by a cutting wind or drizzling sleet, foreshadowing conflict to come. 

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The Temptation to Quit

The temptation is always there. Why not just quit?

When a job gets hard, when I have to struggle and push myself, there’s always this little part of my mind whispering you don’t have to do this. Just quit.

Do something else. It’s not worth working yourself to death over. Nobody will care. Heck, most of the time, nobody will even notice. 

I don’t want to be a quitter. I invested many years working at the same job and going home to the same man. I was tempted to quit both a few times. I’m very glad I didn’t. The difference is that thing about nobody knowing or caring. If quitting will cause a giant upheaval in your life, it’s easier to stick with it.

When it comes to my writing, quitting (or pushing forward) is a private battle I  fight alone. Every day.

If I stop polishing my novel, few will know and nobody will really care. If my memoir never gets sent to another agent or editor, the world will go on spinning and the lives of those around me will be unfazed.  So why struggle? Why not just quit?

Every day I decide to keep trying.

Do you struggle to keep going?

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Editing

No writer is capable of being completely objective about  her own work

Even the best authors in the world have editors.  We seldom see an editor’s name  on a book cover and only occasionally find it buried among the acknowledgements. Editing tends to be an essential, but thankless task.   Beginning writers dream  their first draft will be instantly snapped up by an enthusiastic editor at Random House or Knopf, who will then devote herself to making it a best seller.

Unfortunately, this is a dream. Long before you send that manuscript off, you need to make sure it has been read by many eyes other than your own.  Self-editing is an essential component of the writer’s craft, but  no writer is capable of being completely objective about his or her work, and outside viewpoints are vital.  Share your work with a critique group or  writing community. When you get feedback, listen carefully, take notes, and don’t go into an automatic defense of every word and idea.

If you don’t have a good local writer’s community, find one online. Some good sites to try are:

         

If you plan to self publish you may want to hire an independent editor to help give your book that final polish.

Victoria Strauss, blogging for Writer Beware, has written an excellent article on how to Vet an Independent Editor.

….paid editing is not a magic fix. Editing is a subjective process–there’s no set formula for dynamic plots or well-rounded characters or even good prose style (beware of any independent editor who tells you there is). And even the most accomplished editor can’t turn a bad manuscript into a good one, or a mediocre manuscript into a blockbuster. They can only work with what’s already there.

Bottom line, do everything you can to make your manuscript the best it can possibly be, before it lands on the publishing house editor’s desk who will ultimately decide whether you get a professional book contract.

I appreciate Editors.  Check out my Editors Pinterest Board!

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Details

About a hundred years ago (more or less) I used to try to write poetry. After writing and scrapping several wastebaskets full of crapola, I began to study the poems I liked and make lists of what they had in common. One thing stood out: Details.  Original details.

Specific details early in the piece give readers a place to stand, a reference point to experience the rest of the story. Although most people go through life without consciously noticing details, writers must observe the details.

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image1882776Including specific details will improve any kind of writing, not just poetry, but use details that advance the idea. Don’t use details just to use details. For instance, if I want to convey the loneliness of a school playground abandoned after a shooting, I might mention an empty swing  swaying in the breeze. I won’t mention exactly how many swings or what brand, because those details don’t describe the loneliness I want the reader to feel.

Mix your details carefully. Put them in some sort of order. Generally, unless for some kind of effect, the order will be how the eye sees them, such as along the street, from high to low. Don’t make the reader jump around.

It is essential to include details from more than one sense.

Include  details on hearing, texture, or smell.  Remember, the sense of smell is the most primitive, and often invokes the strongest emotion.

When you use details in your writing, you show not tell. You have no choice. Details let the reader experience and thus connect to the story.

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Critique Group

I wouldn’t be writing today if I didn’t belong to the Callaway Critique Group.

Most successful writers recommend a good critique group and the web is full of advice on how to form, find, or manage one.  There are debates on whether it is better to meet in person or online, whether meetings should be structured or laid back, and even instructions on how to interview “applicants.”  The general consensus seems to be that good critique groups don’t just happen – they must be planned.

I didn’t actually read any of this advice before we started the group. That’s a good thing, because it probably would have scared me off of the whole idea.   Our critique group sprang from a larger writer’s group that had been meeting once a month  for several years.    The large group was all about projects:  readings, anthologies, workshops for beginners, and  even a mentoring program for teen writers.

Some of us wanted to spend more time critiquing and getting critiques for our own writing.  It felt selfish at the time, but splitting away from the big group is the best thing I ever did for my writing.

Most expert say a critique group should be small, no more that five or six members. We have a core group of five.   We are all novelists, but genres and styles vary:  literary, mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror.  (Yes, I know that’s more than five.) And if someone brings in a memoir or a bit of freelance copy-writing, nobody complains. We critique it.

We’ve been getting together for breakfast every other Saturday for about seven years.  We share manuscripts by email a few days before each meeting. We also have an online group that allows us to keep in touch at a moments notice.  Some days the emails fly back and forth, other days it’s quiet. But we always know the others are there if we need a query letter proof read right away, or quick sympathy and support after getting an impersonal rejection.

Bottom line, if you’re a new writer and don’t belong to a critique group, find one or form your own. It’s worth the effort.

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Agents

Agents are real people. Just like you and me.

I’ve always known that intellectually, but not with my gut.  For years, agents were unapproachable far away giants who guarded the gateway to my dreams.

I discovered the truth at a writer’s conferences where I have met and talked with actual agents. Not only are they flesh and blood, they also have families they can’t always control, bosses they don’t always please,  and hair that sometimes gets mussed.

The first person who helped me see the human behind the myth was a little woman I met in a bar the night before a conference opened. She drank too much that night and cursed profusely with the husky, stressed out voice of a lifelong smoker. At the beginning of the evening I hovered as close by as possible, clutching a bag carefully packed with a presentation package I hoped to show her.  At the end of the evening I watched from the other side of the room, feeling sorry for the embarrassed conference volunteer who struggled with  the thankless task of  handling a drunken keynote speaker.

Did I trust her with my manuscript later in the week when I had the chance? No. I did not. But I have always been grateful to her in a perverse way. Never again did I look at an an agent with the same awestruck reverence.

Since that night I’ve met agents who are warm and approachable and others who are cool and professional.  I’ve met flighty young agents and stodgy older agents.  Mostly nice people. Just like you and me. Honest.

To help me remember agents are real people, I started a Pinterest  board called Literary Agents.

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A simple four-item formula for turning story into fiction 

The execution may get complicated, but the basic maneuvers are simple:

1. Move and keep moving. Tell the story you want to tell without shilly-shallying around. Move your characters out onto the board, get them into interesting situations, and have them do big, consequential things as early as you can. Then, continue making situations interesting, and keep the big, consequential actions coming.

Note: Strong characters who assess, decide, and react quickly are especially good for holding the reader’s attention. Our eyes are naturally drawn to objects in motion.

2. Make it consequential. To the greatest extent possible, have later events be caused or motivated or shaped by earlier ones. Every causal or consequential link you can build into the story is a steel cable holding your narrative together. When you can’t find any way to link an event via consequence, see whether you can link it thematically to what has gone before.

3. Recycle your characters. Give preference to characters already used in earlier episodes, or to characters connected with them, when you’re peopling later events. Characters are made more interesting by being reused, and it increases the overall consequentiality of the story. One-time single-purpose characters are occasionally necessary, but they don’t support as much weight.

Cherish your good secondary characters. They’re infinitely useful.

4. See if you already have one. Whenever you need something new — prop, plot thread, setting, minor character — go back through the parts of the story you’ve already written and see whether you can find it there. It’s surprising how often the exact thing you need is already sitting there in plain sight.

 

This list is a an excerpt from Teresa, over at Making Light .

 

 

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